Happy Smells, Memories, and Neurotags

A few weeks ago, my husband returned from spending a few days at Barnsley Gardens Resort, where he helped with a fundraising event for the Atlanta Area Boy Scouts of America. Upon his happy return (for all parties involved– single moms: you are rockstars!), he gifted me with a bottle of my favorite relaxing lotion, scented with lavender and peppermint. It is heavenly, and we both adore it! It has become a tradition that he brings me a bottle every time he helps with the event in November. Why do we both love it so much? Well, 3 years ago, we spent 2 wonderful nights at Barnsley Gardens for a mini babymoon. It was our last getaway as a family of two. I was super pregnant, but we ate delicious food, relaxed in the pool, went on evening walks, and slept in. We had an incredible couples massage also, and this lotion was the smell of the spa. We bought a bottle then, and even now, 3 years later, using the lotion evokes feeling of peacefulness, joy, love, and overall relaxation.

So, what happened there? How do brain-smell associations work? (And I know some of you are sitting there thinking…what does this have to do with the pelvis?)

We’ve all been there, right? When I hear the song “Kiss me” by Sixpence None the Richer, I’m transported back to the middle of the summer working as a lifeguard. I smell sunscreen and chlorine and feel the warmth of the sunshine. When I smell a certain blend of middle eastern herbal tea, I’m transported back to Cairo, Egypt where I studied abroad in college, walking through the busy streets at the downtown market. Our brains are incredible like that. Certain memories impact us, and cause our brains to form neurotags– specific patterns of neural activation based on that single input. This is why all of the pieces of the memory come flooding back to you when you have the evoked stimulus (in my case recently, amazing lavender mint lotion).

Now let’s jump into pelvic health, and particularly, chronic pain. What if the brain forms neurotags about pain? For example, what if a person began having pain with sitting, and let’s say, for this example, they experienced a few situations where they needed to sit for a long period of time, and the pain was just awful. As we have discussed many many times, we know that all pain is produced by the brain, that the brain can play tricks on us, and that the brain does change over time due to pain and many other factors. The brain could then, build a neurotag about sitting. Basically, when the person in the above example goes to sit, the brain will activate the neural pathways to remember pain, negativity, perhaps anxiety/stress about the situation, etc. and instead of amplifying the feelings of peace and love (like my lotion!), the brain will amplify the feelings of distress and pain. What about a painful medical examination? A negative sexual experience?

Fascinating, right? So, what can we do about it? 

First, recognize a negative neurotag for what it is– your brain recognizing familiarity. And what it is not– a true interpretation of the current situation.

Next, change up the pattern to trick your brain. If you have pain when bending forward to pick something up, can you try the bending motion while lying down (ie pulling your knees up to your chest)? If you had a negative medical exam and start feeling anxious about your appointment, could you see a different provider at a different office? Perhaps request a different position for the exam?  If you have pain with sex, could you alter the experience? Maybe this means a different position, different location, different warm-up?

After that, aim to build new, positive neurotags for your brain. How do we build positive neurotags? It can start by building a positive association for your brain. So, this could mean diffusing a calming oil blend while listening to a guided relaxation track. Once this association builds for the brain, you could then try using the same scent within a typically negative situation (assuming you have also removed the negative stimulus!). For people with pelvic floor pain, we often use gentle manual treatment (either with a finger or vaginal trainers) to provide a safe input to the tissues in a way that the brain will not guard and protect by pain.  Now, envision pairing that calming scent with gentle pelvic floor muscle desensitization? The options are endless for creativity in building positive neurotags! Movement can also be great to build positive neurotags! If you find that pain limits what you can do, working with a physical therapist to develop movements you can do, that keep you at minimal to no discomfort can help your brain build neurotags for safety with movement again!

If this is fascinating to you (as you know it is to me!), here are a few other resources to check out:

These amazing Vlogs by Jilly Bond, one of my favorite physios across the pond (You may recognize a certain someone in the second video!):

Your Brain is Playing Tricks on You, Part 2: Pain

Guest Post: There’s a Pelvis….in Your Brain? 

What neurotags have you noticed in your life? Fun? Serious? I want to hear them all!

Back Pain and Breastfeeding? Here are 5 Tips to Help!

Did you know that last week was international breastfeeding week? I know this event and really, even discussions about breastfeeding can lead to lots of thoughts amongst mamas. Pride, having accomplished something challenging. Sadness, if your breastfeeding journey did not necessarily go as planned. Fear, as to whether your baby is actually getting enough milk and growing the way she should. Joy. Guilt. Happiness. Anger. The list goes on.

I think it’s important that while we recognize that breastfeeding has incredible benefits, we also recognize what is most important– a fed and growing baby and a healthy happy momma. There is so much that goes into the decision a parent makes about how to feed their baby, and it’s important that we help all feel supported and loved– not judged and put down. (Again, let’s build each other up, parents!!)

Musculoskeletal pain postpartum is fairly common. A 2019 study of 400 breastfeeding women found that around 37% experienced neck pain and 22% experienced low back pain. Another 2015 study looked at the experiences of 229 individuals after giving birth. Around 50% experienced back pain and 25% had an onset of back pain at 2 or more weeks postpartum. (This later onset makes a lot of sense to me based on the big changes in movement and positioning that often happen after having babies.)

So, if you are having back pain after childbirth, you’re in good company. I’ll add here that while this is indeed common, it if not normal. This is good news, because it means that we actually have strategies to help this improve.

What can a nursing mama do to help these aches and pains?

1. Be sure you are using good mechanics when you feed your little one. My daughter takes 20-30 min to feed and ate every 2-3 hours after birth (and now, at 9 weeks old, still eats every 2 hours or so during the day–but sleeps more at night!! Yay!). That means that she feeds anywhere from 160-360 minutes each day. That is a long time to be in the same position. So, to minimize aches and pains, aim to sit with support at your back. If possible, find a comfortable place to feed your baby where your body can relax and you aren’t having to work to stay in a good position for feeding. Also, be sure you bring your baby to your breast not your breast to your baby. If you are having to bring your breast to your baby, you’ll inevitably slump down and holding that position for 20-30 minutes makes my back hurt just thinking about it.

IMG_2443
My first little nursling, Emma, after she just finished eating.

These recommendations also hold true for my pumping and bottle feeding mamas. Pumping also leaves you in one position (unless you have one of the new styles of pumps like the Elvie– more to come later on that!!) for a long period of time, so being sure you have a comfortable place to pump and feed your baby is key!

2. Use pillows and cushions to provide support. Remember, 360 minutes in one position each day can be touch. Try using pillows like the boppy, brest friend, or others that support the baby being lifted to the breast. I actually find for my daughter that I like the boppy more when I sit in my glider or recliner, but I prefer the brest friend when I’m sitting in bed (used with a pillow under it for positioning). Right after birth, depending on where I was sitting, I sometimes just preferred using a few pillows, or using a football hold position to nurse. So, try a few options and see what helps you get into the most optimal position.

If you are bottle feeding, using pillows and supports like this can still be helpful to keep you in an ergonomic position and support your baby during your feed.

3. Change it up. When it comes to posture, the current thought is along the lines that there is not one perfect posture per se, but rather variability in posture and movement seems to be important. So, changing up your position to feed can sometimes help. This can mean feeding in a wrap or a carrier (I have yet to master that!), or nursing while lying down (my most favorite!). Sometimes mixing it up like this can make a big difference.

4. Take movement breaks between feeds. This goes along with Tip #3. Movement breaks like this feel amazing to me after nursing my little Mary. The following movement sequence is meant to take you out of the position you’re in to feed, and help restore some variability. Doing a short movement series between feeds like this can really help improve these aches and pains.

Cat-cow: I love this exercise because it allows your spine to move well into flexion and extension. This can feel great when you have been feeding for so long or holding your baby in a slightly flexed position. Pairing this with breathing can be fantastic as well (and helps to get your deep core–including your pelvic floor–involved). To do this, inhale while your back extends and your head comes up. Exhale while you arch your back, tucking your pelvis and allowing your head to drop down.

Wall Angels: This is another of my favorites. This exercise stabilizes your low back while encouraging movement at your shoulders and mid-back. It feels AMAZING if you have been sitting for a while at a computer…or in this case…sitting for a while and feeding a little one!

Reach and Roll: This exercise is a good one to get some movement in your shoulders and thoracic spine. Keep your pelvis “stacked” and your knees and hips bent to 90 degrees to encourage movement through your upper back.

Child’s Pose: This is a nice position to open your hips, lengthen your spine and extend your shoulders. As a bonus, a wide-kneed child’s pose also encourages lengthening of the pelvic floor muscles, so this is a favorite exercise of mine for individuals with pelvic floor overactivity or pelvic pain. **If you are fairly early postpartum, you may not want to lengthen your pelvic floor this way. So, in your case, consider keeping your knees together rather than wide.

5. If pain persists, seek help! This could mean seeing a lactation consultant if you are needing help positioning your baby. It could also mean seeking an evaluation with a physical therapist who has experience working with people postpartum (usually, this primarily includes pelvic health PTs). While back pain can be very aggravating, it is often very treatable. We usually see good results for people experiencing this, very quickly.

I hope this helps some of my fellow nursing mamas! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out!

Have a wonderful weekend!

~ Jessica

Pelvic Floor Safe Options for Fitness

Exercise has so many incredible benefits for overcoming pain, optimizing cardiovascular health, and facilitating psychological well-being. Unfortunately, for many struggling with pelvic floor dysfunction (whether it is in the form of pelvic pain, urinary/bowel dysfunction, or pelvic organ prolapse), thoughts of exercise and fitness are often accompanied by fear. Fear that moving incorrectly will lead to a worsening of their symptoms. Fear of a set-back. Fear of creating a new problem. Finding an exercise program that will not only be safe, but actually aid in a person’s recovery and pelvic floor health is a fine art. Seeing a skilled pelvic floor physical therapist can be a good step in finding an individualized exercise program, but many may not have the luxury of working with a professional.

Recently, I did some research to help a few my patients find on-demand options for guided fitness that were pelvic floor friendly. I am grateful to have such an incredible community of pelvic health professionals to learn from and learn with, and I wanted to share these fantastic resources with you here. As always, please know that what works well for one person may not work well for another, thus, an individualized assessment is always the best option to determine the most appropriate exercise program for you.

Yoga_at_a_Gym
By http://www.localfitness.com.au – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3910805

For those with pelvic pain or pelvic floor tension (often the case in cases of pelvic pain, constipation, overactive bladder):

For those with pelvic floor weakness (often the case–but not always! in situations like urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse, diastasis rectus, fecal incontinence):

  • Mutu System: This is an excellent post-partum recovery program. Very helpful for those with pelvic floor weakness or diastasis rectus after having a baby. This is often my “go-to” for people having these problems that are unable to travel to see a pelvic PT. She does a great job at encouraging appropriate referral for further evaluation as well.
  • Fit2B: This is an online program with options for purchasing specific programs or for membership. It has a postpartum series, diastasis recti series, prenatal workshop, and foundational courses. I have had patients use this program who really enjoyed it.
  • The Pelvic Floor Piston: Foundation for Fitness by Julie Wiebe: Julie has an excellent course for individuals with pelvic floor dysfunction that incorporates education, exercises, as well as strategies for movement. It is a self-paced 90 minute video.
  • Your Pace Yoga by Dustienne Miller: Dustienne has expanded her video library to include videos such as “Optimizing Bladder Control” which includes sequences to support pelvic floor engagement through yoga.
  • Creating Pelvic Floor Health with Shelly Prosko: Part B Pelvic Floor Muscle Engagement. “40 minute practice that includes engagement of the pelvic floor muscles with various mindful movements and yoga postures integrated with the breath pattern.” Shelly was kind enough to offer blog viewers 10% off her combined package using the discount code: ClientDiscount10
  • FemFusion Fitness by Brianne Grogan: Brianne has an excellent video series (free too!) on youtube called, “Lift” Pelvic Support. This series includes a progression for safe progression through strengthening to better support the organs in the pelvis.
  • Pelvic Exercises by Michelle Kenway: Michelle has done excellent work creating videos and ebooks on safe exercise progressions for pelvic floor muscle weakness, prolapse, bowel dysfunction and surgical recovery. Check out her excellent videos here.

I hope these resources are helpful! Did I leave anything out? If you have other wonderful home exercise options that are “pelvic floor friendly” please let me know in the comments below!

~Jessica

Guest Post: There’s a pelvis… in your brain?!

As an educator, one of my biggest rewards is working with students and clinicians as they learn and grow in the field of pelvic floor physical therapy. This past winter, I was fortunate to work with Amanda Bastien, SPT, a current 3rd year doctoral student at Emory University. Amanda is passionate about helping people, dedicated to learning, and truly just an awesome person to be around, and I am so grateful to have played a small role in her educational journey! Today, I am thrilled to introduce her to all of you! Amanda shares my fascination with the brain and particularly the role it can play when a person is experiencing persistent pain. I hope you all enjoy this incredible post from Amanda! 

Have you ever been told your pain is “all in your head?” Unfortunately, this is often the experience of many people experiencing persistent pelvic pain. Interestingly enough, the brain itself is actually very involved in producing pain, particularly when a person has experienced pain for a long period of time. In this post, I’ll explain to you how someone can come to have pain that is ingrained in their brain, literally, and more importantly, what we can do to help them get better.

Pelvis image

Our brains are incredible! They are constantly changing and adapting; every second your brain fine tunes connections between brain cells, called neurons, reflecting your everyday experiences. This works like a bunch of wires that can connect to one another in different pathways and can be re-routed. Another way to say this is “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This process of learning and adapting with experiences is known as neuroplasticity or neural plasticity. It is a well-documented occurrence in humans and animals. If you’re interested in learning more, this is a great article that summarizes the principles underlying neuroplasticity.1

In the case of pain…. well, here’s where it gets a little complicated.

The brain has distinct physical areas that have been found to relate to different functions and parts of the body.

brain areas

Those two spots in the middle that read “primary motor cortex” and “primary sensory cortex” relate to the control of body movements, and the interpretation of stimulus as sensations like hot, cold, sharp, or dull. By interpretation, I mean the brain uses this area to make sense of the signals it’s receiving from the rest of the body and decides what this feels like. These areas can be broken down by body structure, too.

In this next image, you’re looking at the brain like you’ve cut it down the middle, looking from the back of someone’s head to the front. This image illustrates the physical areas of the brain that correlate to specific limbs and body parts. This representation is known as a homunculus.

homonculus

See how the hand and facial features look massive? That’s because we do a LOT with our hands, have delicate control of our facial expressions, and feel many textures with both. Thus, these areas need a lot of physical space in our brains. In this image, the pelvis takes up less space than other areas, but for people who pay a lot of attention to their pelvis, this area may be mapped differently, or not as well-defined. We know that the brain changes due to experiences, and ordinarily, it has a distinct physical map of structures. But what happens when that brain map is drawn differently with experiences like pain?

Studies suggest that over time, the brain undergoes changes related to long-lasting pain. If someone is often having to pay attention to an area that is painful, they may experience changes in how their brain maps that experience on a day-to-day basis. This varies from person to person, and we’re still learning how this happens. Here’s an example: in a recent study, people experiencing long-standing pelvic pain were found to have more connections in their brains than in those of a pain-free control group, among other findings. The greater the area of pain, the more brain changes were found.2 My point here is to provide you with an example of how the brain can undergo changes with pain that can help explain how strange and scary it can feel for some. Read on to find out how we can work to reverse this!

The process that makes pain occur is complex. It often starts with some injury, surgery, or other experience causing tissue stress. First, cells respond by alerting nerves in the tissues. Then, that signal moves to the spinal cord and the brain, also called the central nervous system. The brain weighs the threat of the stress; neurons communicate with each other throughout the brain, in order to compare the stressor to prior experiences, environments, and emotions. The brain, the commander-in-chief, decides if it is dangerous, and responds with a protective signal in the form of pain.

Pain is a great alarm to make you change what you’re doing and move away from a perceived danger. Over time, however, the brain can over-interpret tissue stress signals as dangerous. Imagine an amplifier getting turned up on each danger signal, although the threat is still the same. This is how tissue stress can eventually lead to overly sensitive pain, even after the tissues themselves are healed.3

Additionally, your brain attempts to protect the area by smudging its drawing of the sensory and motor maps in a process called cortical remapping. Meaning, neurons have fired so much in an area that they rewire and connections spread out. This may be apparent if pain becomes more diffuse, spreads, and is harder to pinpoint or describe. For example, pain starts at the perineum or the tailbone, but over time is felt in a larger area, like the hips, back, or abdomen. To better understand this, I highly recommend watching this video by David Butler from the NOI group.

He’s great, huh? I could listen to him talk all day!

Pain alarms us to protect us, sometimes even when there’s nothing there! After having a limb amputated, people may feel as though the limb is still present, and in pain. This is called phantom limb pain. The limb has changed, but the connections within the brain have not. However, over time the connections in the brain will re-route. I share this example to illustrate how the brain alone can create pain in an area. Pain does not equal tissue injury; the two can occur independently of one another.4 Pain signals can also be created or amplified by thoughts, emotions, or beliefs regarding an injury. Has your pain ever gotten worse when you were stressed?

There is also some older case evidence that describes how chronic pain and bladder dysfunction evolved for people after surgery, in a way that suggests this type of brain involvement.5  Another case study describes a patient with phantom sensations of menstrual cramps following a total hysterectomy! 6

So, can we change the connections that have already re-mapped?

Yes!! The brain is ALWAYS changing, remember? There are clinicians who can help. Physicians have medications that target the central nervous system to influence how it functions. Psychologists and counselors can help people better understand their mental and emotional experiences as they relate to pain, and to work through these to promote health. Physical therapy provides graded exposure to stimuli such as movement or touch, in a therapeutic way that promotes brain changes and improved tolerance to those stimuli that are painful. This can result in a clearer, well-defined brain map and danger signals that are appropriate for the actual level of threat. Physical therapists also help people improve their strength and range of motion, so they can move more, hurt less, and stay strong when life throws heavy things at us!  It is SO important to return to moving normally and getting back to living! Poor movement strategies can prolong pain and dysfunction, and this can turn a short-term stressor into long-lasting, sensitized pain. (See Jessica’s blog here: LINK)

Of course, with any kind of treatment, it also depends on the unique individual. Everyone has personal experiences associated with pain that can make treatment different for them. We are still learning about how neural plasticity occurs, but the brain DOES change. This is how we are all able to adapt to new environments and circumstances around us! Pain is our protective mechanism, but sometimes it can get out of hand. While tissue injury can elicit pain, the nervous system can become overly sensitized to stimulus and cause pain with no real danger. This perception can spread beyond the original problem areas, and this can occur from connections remapping in the brain and the spinal cord. For pelvic pain, treatment is often multidisciplinary, but should include a pelvic health physical therapist who can facilitate tissue healing, optimal movement, and who can utilize the principles of neural plasticity to promote brain changes and return to function.

Amanda_Bastien2Amanda Bastien is a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, currently completing her Doctorate of Physical Therapy degree, graduating in May 2018. Amanda has a strong interest in pelvic health, orthopedics, neuroscience and providing quality information and care to her patients. 

References:

  1. Kleim, J.A., Jones, T.A. (2008). Principles of experience-dependent neural plasticity: Implications for rehabilitation after brain damage. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 51, S225-S239. Retrieved from: https://www.jsmf.org/meetings/2008/may/Kleim%20&%20Jones%202008.pdf
  2. Kutch, J. J., Ichesco, E., Hampson, J. P., et al. (2017). Brain signature and functional impact of centralized pain: a multidisciplinary approach to the study of chronic pelvic pain (MAPP) network study. PAIN, 158, 1979-1991.
  3. Origoni, M., Maggiore, U. L. R., Salvatore, S., Candiani, M. (2014). Neurobiological mechanisms of pelvic pain. BioMed Research International, 2014, 1-9. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/903848
  4. Flor, H., Elbert, T., Knecht, S. et al. (1995). Phantom -limb pain as a perceptual correlate of cortical reorganization following an arm amputation. Nature, 375, 482-484.
  5. Zermann, D., Ishigooka, M., Doggweiler, R., Schmidt, R. (1998) Postoperative chronic pain and bladder dysfunction: Windup and neuronal plasticity – do we need a more neuroulogical approach in pelvic surgery? Urological Neurology and Urodynamics, 160, 102-105.
  6. Dorpat, T.L. (1971) Phantom sensations of internal organs. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 12(1), 27-35.

 

 

Head, Shoulders, Knees…and Pelvic Floor!

I spent my first few years of practice going deep into the pelvis… and my most recent few years, desperately trying to get out. Now, I know that may seem like a strange statement to read coming from me, the pelvic floor girl. But bear with me. I love the pelvic floor, I really do. I enjoy learning about the pelvis, treating bowel/bladder problems, helping my patients with their most intimate of struggles. I like to totally “nerd out” reading about the latest research related to complex nerve pain, hormonal and nutritional influences, and complicated or rarely understood diagnoses. However, the more I learned about the pelvic floor, the more I discovered that in order to provide my patients with the best care I can possibly provide, I needed to journey outside the pelvis and integrate the rest of the body.

You see, the pelvic floor does not work in isolation.

It is not the only structure preventing you from leaking urine.

It is not the sole factor in allowing you to have pleasurable sexual intercourse.

It is not the only structure stabilizing your tailbone as you move.

It is simply one gear inside the fascinating machine of the body.

And, the incredible thing about the body is that a problem above or below that gear, can actually influence the function of the gear itself! And that is pretty incredible! One of the patients that most inspired me to really start my journey outside of the pelvis was an 18-year-old girl I treated 4 years ago. She was a senior in high school and prior to the onset of her pelvic pain had been an incredible athlete– playing soccer, volleyball and ice hockey. Since developing pelvic pain, she had to stop all activities. Her pain led to severe nausea, and was greatly impacting her senior year. When I examined her, I noticed some interesting patterns in the way she walked. With further questioning, she ended up telling me that a year ago, she experienced a fracture of her tibia (the bone by her knee) while playing soccer. She was immobilized in a brace for about a month, then cleared to resume all activity. (Yep, no physical therapy). Looking closer, she had significant weakness around her knee that was influencing the way she moved, and leading to a compensatory “gripping” pattern in her pelvic floor muscles to attempt to stabilize her hips and legs during movement. So, we treated her knee (She actually ended up having a surgery for a meniscal tear that had not been discovered by her previous physician), and guess what? Her pelvic pain was eliminated. BOOM. If you want to read more about her story, I actually wrote the case up for Jessica McKinney’s blog and pelvic health awareness project, Share MayFlowers, in 2013.

So, what else is connected to the pelvic floor? Here are a few interesting scenarios:

  • Poor mobility in the neck and upper back can actually lead to neural tension throughout the body– yes, including the nerves that go to the pelvic floor. (I’ve had patients bend their neck to look down and experience an increase in tailbone pain. How amazing is that?)
  • Being stuck in a slumped posture can cause a person to have decreased excursion of his or her diaphragm, which can then put the pelvic floor in a position in which it is unable to contract or relax the way it needs to.
  • Grinding your teeth at night? That increased tension in the jaw can impact the intrathoracic pressure (from glottis to diaphragm), which in turn, impacts the intra-abdominal pressure (from diaphragm to pelvic floor) and, you guessed it, your pelvic floor muscles!
  • An ankle injury may cause a person to change the way he or she walks, which could increase the work one hip has to do compared to the other. This can cause certain muscles to fatigue and become sore and tender, including the pelvic floor muscles!

Pretty cool right? And the amazing thing is that this is simply scratching the surface! The important thing to understand here is that you are a person, not a body part! Be cautious if you are working with someone who refuses to look outside of your “problem” to see you as a whole. And if you have a feeling in your gut that something might be connected to what you have going on, it really might be! Speak up!

As always, I love to hear from you! Have you learned of any interesting connections between parts of your body? For my fellow pelvic PTs out there, what cool clinical correlations have you found?

Have a great Tuesday!

Jessica

Wanna read more? Check out this prior post on connections between the diaphragm and the rest of the body!

 

The benefits of slowing down

“Ok, let’s try that again, but I want you to do it a little bit more slowly.” 

“Let’s see if you can do that with a little bit less tension.” 

“Do you feel how your neck is working while you’re trying to move your hips? Let’s see if you can do that with only moving your hips.” 

These statements (or variations of them) are ones I tend to make most days of the week. One of the most common things I notice in the men and women I treat with persistent pelvic pain is difficulty in modulating tension. I generally can see this from the moment they walk in my office:

  • Gripping postures, sitting with the shoulders elevated, gripping the chest or the glutes, tightening the back.
  • Minimal variability of movement (basically meaning it is difficult for them to move in different patterns, fully bend and rotate their spines and hips, etc)
  • Altered breathing patterns with poor diaphragmatic excursion

This type of high-tension behavior often occurs in conjunction with a dominant sympathetic nervous system (which we have discussed several times in the past– read here and here). In these cases, the body will feel constantly threatened (makes sense if you’ve had pain for a long time and don’t seem to get better) which can lead to the “fight-or-flight” response being pushed into overdrive. When this occurs, we typically see amped up muscle tension, changes in breathing patterns, and many additional physiological compensations (which you can read more about here). And, I believe this pattern tends to also lead to an overly gripped, hypervigilant pelvic floor muscle group. Then, what I typically see is that instead of the pelvic floor activating with variability, based on the required task at hand (meaning, small amounts of activation for small tasks, and large amounts of activation for bigger tasks), we will instead see loss of force modulation with very high amounts of activation for basic tasks and an inability to let go of that force for simple tasks or tasks that require relaxation (bowel movements, sex, etc).

So, with all of that being said, one of the best things a person with persistent pelvic pain can do is to learn to slow down and control his or her tension patterns. My patients typically begin working on this within the first week or so of treatment, and we continue working on this throughout the initial phase of their care. Basically, our goal is to create awareness of movement–to move mindfully and truly feel what the body is doing to accomplish a task. Typically, as a person becomes more mindful of the movements he or she is performing, we will see an alteration in the force required to perform the movement and this, along with other treatments we are working on, encourages a shift of the body from an overly sympathetic state to a more neutral one. 

So, how can you get started with slow and mindful movements if you are struggling with persistent pelvic pain? 

First, if you are already working with a pelvic PT, talk with them about your tension strategies. Ask her if she has noticed you moving with higher tension and discuss with her integrating slow and mindful movements within your treatment program. If you are not in pelvic PT, or wish to try something on your own, here is one of my favorite exercises to start with:

The Pelvic Clock 

  • This exercise is adapted from a Feldenkrais movement (I believe). I love it because I can integrate diaphragmatic breathing with pelvic floor relaxation, and it encourages awareness of the movement of the pelvis. I tend to find that many people with pelvic pain have difficulty truly knowing where their pelvis is in space and how it moves, and this exercise can help to improve that.  So, let’s get started.

Pelvic Clock

  • Begin in a relaxed comfortable position, lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet resting on the mat (bed, floor, whatevs). Visualize a clock sitting on your pelvis as is shown in the picture above.
  • Start with slow, diaphragmatic breathing. Remember, breathing with your diaphragm will allow the ribcage to expand in all directions, the belly and chest will lift, but the muscles of your neck and shoulders should stay relaxed. If you have not read much about diaphragmatic breathing, read this post and its links before moving forward)
  • Next, we will start to integrate your pelvic floor into your breathing. So, on the next inhale, visualize the breath allowing your pelvic floor to lengthen and relax. This should not be something forceful (ie. don’t push out your pelvic floor), but rather, just focus on letting go of tension as you inhale, allowing the pelvic floor to gently lengthen and the abdominal wall to let go of any tension.
  • Next, we will add in gentle movement of the pelvis with your breath. As you inhale, the pelvic floor will relax and pelvis will gently tilt toward 6 o’clock (allowing the tailbone to fall toward the mat). As you exhale, gently tilt the pelvis back to 12 o’clock allowing the low back to slowly come into contact with the mat. Repeat this slow pattern, focusing on trying to use small amounts of muscle tension to accomplish the task. Remember that this movement and really any other movement should not cause you to guard, tense your muscles or drive up any of the pain you are experiencing.
  • Once you feel confident and comfortable with the previous step, you can begin to add the rotational component. This time, as you inhale, slowly rotate the pelvis around the clock shifting from 12 –> 3 –> 6, ending in the position where your tailbone is gently dropped toward the mat. As you exhale, allow the pelvis to rotate from 6–> 9–> 12, ending in the position where your low back is gently resting on the mat.  Repeat this pattern for several breaths, then try to reverse the motion (inhaling as you move from 12 –>9–>6 and exhaling from 6–>3–>12)
  • Challenge yourself further by trying to allow the pelvis to move through all the numbers of the clock (12–>1–>2–>3… etc).

Remember, there is no rush to performing this exercise! The purpose is awareness– to really feel your pelvis move and shut off any additional tension in performing the task. Did you feel your neck tighten as you were moving? Try again with a focus on keeping it relaxed. Are your legs tightening and moving frequently as you move through the clock? Try to see if you can calm that tension and isolate the movement to your pelvis. Do you feel your pelvic floor gripping as you move? Try to see if you can keep the emphasis on relaxing the pelvic floor during your breathing.

Are you thirsty for more? 

A few of my other favorites for slow, mindful movements are found in both Yoga and the Feldenkrais method. I love Dustienne Miller’s (she’s a pelvic PT too!) home video, yoga for pelvic pain and have had many patients benefit from using it. I also enjoy the Awareness Through Movement lessons with the Feldenkrais Method. Several free online lessons are available here via the OpenATM program.

I hope you have found this helpful! What other movements have you found helpful for pelvic pain? Pelvic PTs and patients, feel free to chime in, so we can all keep learning together!

Happy Wednesday!

~ Jessica

Mindfulness, Meditation and Pain

“If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place. Primary reality is within; secondary reality without.” ~ Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

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Within many traditional clinical practices, mindfulness-based or meditation-based exercises are considered alternative, eastern, touchy-feely or even “voo-doo.” It is often seen as a complementary treatment that may be helpful…but really isn’t going to “treat” the client. I’ve had many clinicians I respect significantly tell me that they don’t use guided meditation within their practice for this exact reason. Respectfully, I have to disagree with that sentiment. I recommend mindfulness-based relaxation or guided meditation to my patients on almost a daily basis, and I believe strongly that there are so many benefits in this practice for a person struggling with persistent pain.

Pain Neuroscience 

To understand why meditation is helpful in overcoming persistent pain, it is crucial to understand what pain is, and to truly grasp the role of the brain in pain (Summary: No brain, no pain). If you are new to this blog, or new to pain science in general, you have a few prerequisites before you move forward:

Ok, I could go on and on…but I won’t. So, we’ll move on.

What is Meditation/Mindfulness Training?  

Mindfulness is described here as a “non-elaborative, non-judgmental awareness of present moment experience.” There are a few different types of mindfulness based meditation practices, usually broken into:

  • Focused Attention: This involves focusing attention on a specific object or sensation (i.e. focusing on breath moving, or focusing on a certain space). If attention is shifted to someone else, the person is then taught to acknowledge it, disengage, and shift the attention back to the object of meditation.
  • Open Monitoring:  This is a non-directed practice of acknowledging any event that occurs in the mind without evaluation or interpretation
  • Variations: There are multiple variations of these practices, usually trending toward one variety or the other. For example, there are guided relaxation exercises which will shift the focus from one body part to another, meditation exercises based on focusing on a color moving through the body, etc.

Meditation and the Brain 

The cool thing is meditation has been found to have some pretty profound effects on the brain. This meta-analysis of fMRI studies aimed to determine how meditation influenced neural activity, and the results were pretty interesting. They found that brain areas from the occipital to frontal lobes were more activated during meditation, specifically areas involved in processing:

  •  self-relevant information (ie. precuneus)
  • self-regulation, problem-solving, and adaptive behavior (ie. anterior cingulate cortex)
  • interoception and monitoring internal body states (ie. insula)
  • reorienting attention (ie. angular gyrus)
  • “experiential enactive self” (ie. premotor cortex and superior frontal gyrus)

Basically, the authors state that all of these areas are characterized by “full attention to internal and external experiences as they occur in the present moment.”

For more information on how meditation impacts the brain, check out this great TEDx talk by Catherine Kerr:

 

Persistent Pain Implications

Now, you may be thinking, why does that matter for a person experiencing persistent pain? Well, it matters because for most people, pain does not solely exist in the present, but rather, is an experience influenced by a complex neural network, integrating 1) what you know about the pain 2) how dangerous you feel it is 3) your history relating to that pain 4) your fears/concerns/worries about the future 5) how this problem relates to your family, job, relationships, home, etc. and 6) so so much more. (including everything helpful and unhelpful your health care providers have told you about your pain.)

Here’s an example. Let’s say you start having some back pain one day after bending over to pick up something off the floor. Happens right? But, what if you used to have back pain years ago and had an MRI that showed degenerative changes in your spine? And what if you have a two year old you have to carry around frequently? What if work has been difficult recently and you’re worried your job is in jeopardy? What if you had a physical therapist tell you that you should never bend down like that or you would “hurt your back?” The amazing thing is that all of these experiences, histories, thoughts, emotions are seamlessly integrated by your brain to determine the immediate “threat level” of your low back, and create an overall pain experience (ultimately, designed to be helpful and protect you against harm).  This story is a real one, and actually happened to a patient of mine…by the time she came into my office, she couldn’t bend forward at all, had severe pain, and was very worried about the level of “damage” in her low back. But, the truth was, she had really just moved in a way that her body chose to guard, and nothing was really “damaged” at all. After a quick treatment session, she was back to full motion without any pain. Now, am I magical in “fixing” backs like that? Yes. But that’s besides the point. But really, all I did was remove the threat level by taking her back to the present moment (ie. Your back is not damaged. Bending is totally fine and functional to do. This is going to get better really soon.) and restore movement to a system that was guarding against it.

So, what does this have to do with meditation/mindfulness? Well, at it’s core, meditation is about changing awareness and improving focus to the present moment. This can then change the “pain story” to decrease the threat level for the present moment, and thus help a person move toward recovery.

Does it work? 

The best part is that it actually seems to make a significant impact (although, of course, we need better larger studies!) Of course, it is just one piece of the puzzle–but I really believe it can be an important component of a comprehensive program to help someone experiencing persistent pain. And, the research actually is trending toward it being beneficial too. In fact, meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction has been shown to be helpful in reducing pain and improving quality of life in men and women experiencing chronic headaches, chronic low back pain,  and non-specific chronic pain.  There have not been many studies looking specifically at chronic pelvic pain, but there was one pilot study I found, and it also seemed to show favorable results in improving quality of life.  Will it take you 10 years of channeling your inner guru to see the benefits? Actually, the research seems to indicate that changes happen pretty quickly. This study actually found improvements after just four sessions.

Getting Started 

If you are experiencing persistent pain, or are a human who happens to have a brain, you would likely benefit from using meditation as part of your daily exercise program (Yes, I consider meditation exercise!) There are so many fabulous resources out there to get started in practicing mindfulness/meditation. Here are a few of my favorites:

Books that are helpful in understanding meditation:

The Power of Nowby Eckhart Tolle- $10 on Amazon 

Peace is Every Step, by Ticht Naht Han- $8 on Amazon 

Free Guided Meditation Exercises ONLINE/APPS-Note, I find different people tend to enjoy different guided meditations/programs. Try a few different ones here, or even go on to youtube and do a little search. You may find some you love and some you hate, and that really is ok. Try to find what works best for you!

Relax Lite with Andrew Johnson– available free on itunes and as an app!

Breathe to Relax– available free on itunes and as an app!

Headspace– available free on itunes and as an app!

Insight Timer– available free on itunes and as an app!

Sattva Meditation Tracker & Timer- available free on itunes and as an app!

Guided Meditation for Pelvic Pain– by Dustienne Miller, PT, available free on her website.

Tara Brach– Great resources with meditations, lectures, and more!

I hope this is helpful for you! What other resources do you enjoy for relaxation/mindfulness/meditation?  Please feel free to share in the comments below!

Wishing you a very merry Christmas and a happy new year!!

~Jessica